The Wilderness Among Us

Blog Image Link

The well-loved Green Mountain National Forest, with its 900 miles of multi-use trails, celebrate its eighty-fifth anniversary.

It was April, with temperatures in the sixties, when my friend Audrey Huffman and I skied off the Heaven’s Gate chairlift at Sugarbush’s Lincoln Peak. We met Brian Mohr, who was leading us on a ski tour beyond the resort boundary to the summit of Mount Abraham. A local photographer, Brian has been at the forefront of the state’s development of backcountry ski trails as a board member of the Catamount Trail Association. 

Leaving the wide trail and skier traffic behind, we entered an opening in the woods and immediately found ourselves awkwardly maneuvering a steep, narrow, and twisted chute. Trusting Brian as our guide, Audrey and I followed with quick turns in the needle-laden snow, ducking beneath low-hanging branches. I spied a white-painted blaze on a tree trunk, the signature trail marker of Vermont’s Long Trail.

“I call this the ‘Long Tunnel’ in winter,” said Brian, smiling, when we caught up with him. “This trail is designed for hiking, not skiing.” It is true that the Long Trail was designed in 1909 to be America’s first long-distance hiking path. It was the vision of James P. Taylor, secretary for the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, who hoped to "make the Vermont mountains play a larger part in the life of the people." He drew up the first map of what would eventually become the Long Trail, stretching 272 miles up through the state between the Massachusetts and Canadian borders (see “Life on the Long Trail”). 

Also inspired by Taylor, the Green Mountain Club (GMC) was formed the next year, with a mission “to protect and maintain the Long Trail system and foster, through education, the stewardship of Vermont's hiking trails and mountains.” The GMC spent the next two decades constructing the trail and was later recognized by the Vermont state legislature as "the founder, sponsor, defender, and protector" of the Long Trail.

Mike DeBonis, executive director of the GMC, describes Taylor as a great salesman. “He had the skills and gumption to sell the idea, and he got people behind it.” Although Taylor was influenced by the growing development of hiking elsewhere—in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, New York’s Adirondacks, and as far away as Europe—DeBonis hinted that Taylor may have had conservationist intentions. “He believed that if Vermonters had a relationship with the land, they would care about it, and would become better stewards of it.” 

Brian, Audrey, and I continued to ski past intermittent white blazes, within a deep forest that I imagined to resemble author C. S. Lewis’s Narnia. We serpentined through stunted spruce trees draped with lichen and by mossy caverns, the likely residences of bobcat or black bear. A fluttering partridge startled me out of my reverie, and the song of black-capped chickadees regularly punctuated the stillness.

Not long after reaching the 3,900-foot saddle just south of Mount Little Abe, we paused at an east-facing vista. The Mad River Valley’s pastoral landscape splayed below, prompting reflections on land conservation. Audrey pointed out the striking juxtaposition of the Valley’s agricultural patchwork as seen from our perch in the remote wilderness. Brian expressed gratitude for the lack of roads in the forest we were in. “We need to set aside large areas of land to let nature function as it should. These places have the greatest biodiversity.” 

Brian was referring to the surrounding Green Mountain National Forest (GMNF), which encompasses more than 400,000 acres and is the largest contiguous expanse of public land in Vermont. We were skiing in an “alpine/subalpine special area,” a GMNF designation, which balances both recreation use and ecological protection. Although less restrictive than the GMNF “wilderness” designation to the south, this designation’s explicit charge to educate recreationists mirrors Taylor’s pioneering philosophy: People who experience the mountain environment will tread lightly and take care of it. 

The unique ecological features of Vermont’s forests were not always valued, nor was protection guaranteed throughout history. In the 1800s, merino sheep farming and potash production initiated the large-scale clearing of Vermont’s forests. Combined with unregulated logging to meet the demands of the nation’s building of factories and homes, Vermont’s lumber production reached its peak in the early 1900s. Consequently, Vermont’s land base was 80 percent deforested and at risk for fires and floods.

Ethan Ready, public affairs officer for the GMNF, identified Vermont’s historic flood of 1927 as a turning point in Vermonters’ disposition toward the forest. Overflowing waterways widely damaged villages and farmland, highlighting an urgent need for watershed protection. Towns began to reforest by planting trees. 

This newfound desire for restoration coincided with a political opportunity from Washington, D.C. Ready explained that the U.S. Congress had passed the Weeks Act in 1911, allowing the federal government to incorporate lands into the National Forest system. As a response to the flood’s devastation, the National Forest Reserve Commission established the GMNF through a series of purchases between 1932 and 1935. 

At the same time, a controversial proposal by the National Park Service to build a scenic highway along the ridge of the Green Mountains was dividing Vermonters across the state. Heated debate about the “Green Mountain Parkway” was reported in the media to be so polarizing that “every citizen in the state became a parkway or anti-parkway man.” During the 1935 Vermont state legislative term, disagreement between the house and senate chambers prompted the governor to call a special session, where lawmakers supported the proposal. However, the issue was ultimately decided by public referendum. In March 1936, Vermonters soundly voted down the parkway on Town Meeting Day, an annual gathering in communities across the state to discuss civic and business matters.

This landmark issue in Vermont’s history was a victory for the members of the GMC who viewed the parkway as a threat to the Long Trail and the Green Mountains. The visibility of the public discourse voicing a clear preference for preserving Vermont’s unspoiled natural environment over economic development fueled a land conservation movement.

Today, Vermont’s forest cover statistic is reversed, with over 80 percent of the state blanketed by woodlands. “Reforested mountains and hillsides provide forest products and recreational opportunities,” said Ready. At the same time, he continued, “the GMNF is one of the most recreated National Forests in the nation . . . with three to four million visitors annually. These outdoor enthusiasts are contributing significantly to our local communities and the overall economy.” 

As positive as that is for the state, Ready acknowledged the potential impact of the seventy million people who live within a day’s drive. “Public land is under increasing pressure to serve the people of this region in a variety of ways.”

Brian expressed different concerns: the various kinds of development pressure on land across the state. He cited an overall reduction of forest cover during the last decade, due to overdevelopment, fragmentation, and energy development. “Much of Vermont’s land is private, and although there is solid support for keeping lands intact, we do take our forest for granted,” he cautioned. 

At the same time, Brian is optimistic about the ability of public land managers, private landowners, conservation and recreation partners, alpine ski areas, and businesses to prioritize protection. “There are great organizations that support all the activities that Vermonters and visitors enjoy,” said Brian. “As a community, we have the opportunity to work together to maintain the interconnected landscapes we have.”

The GMNF counts on partnerships in order to manage its nine hundred miles of multiple-use trails. “We have a long history of collaborative trail and recreation partnerships in Vermont,” said Holly Knox, district recreation program manager for the GMNF. “Our partnerships work together to share resources, knowledge, finances, and labor to provide outstanding trail and recreation activities.” And the National Forest System Trails Stewardship Act, which passed the U.S. Congress in 2016, directs GMNF staff to augment their paid seasonal trail crews with increased volunteers to help with National Forest System trail maintenance.

One of the GMNF’s natural allies from the beginning has been the GMC. Beyond maintaining the Long Trail, the organization educates hikers about the forest’s ecosystem. GMC executive director Mike DeBonis described how summit caretakers are employed during the summer months to point out alpine vegetation to hikers and direct them to clearly marked footpaths. “Mount Abraham is a priority,” said DeBonis. “It is one of three summits in Vermont with a unique composite of alpine tundra vegetation, plants that are remnants of the last ice age.” This “soft stewardship” approach is effective in protecting fragile areas, he added. “People with good information tend to make good decisions.”

Sugarbush Resort’s collaboration with the GMNF dates back to the 1950s, when the resort was granted permission to construct the ski area, which over time would cover 1,745 acres of national forest. It is one of three alpine ski resorts and six Nordic ski areas to operate through a lease agreement in the GMNF. (Sugarbush also works closely with the GMC. In 1997, for instance, the resort granted the GMC a trail easement permanently protecting the 162 acres of privately held land along Mt. Ellen’s ridgeline that hosts a portion of the Long Trail.) “A variety of tools are necessary to work together in mutual and collaborative ways,” explained Margo Wade, director of planning and compliance for the resort. Wade listed numerous guiding and operating documents, including biannual operating plans, special-use permits, and a master development plan, that clarify federal requirements for operating, maintaining, and expanding resort infrastructure. In the master development plan, said Wade, “we set out the existing conditions —where we are today with ski area operations—and our hopes and dreams—where we hope to be in the future.”

Projects, such as new or expanded trails, lifts, and facilities, often require a formal environmental analysis to mitigate impacts on wildlife, from black bears to bats, as well as on air, water, and humans. In recent years, agreed-upon strategies to protect the Bicknell’s thrush, an at-risk eastern North American songbird, have led to avoiding resort activity—such as vegetation removal—in the species’s upper-elevation habitat during the nesting and breeding season, from May 15 to July 31.

As the GMNF celebrates its eighty-fifth anniversary this year, public access to the forest is more valued than ever. Knox points to the emerging sports of backcountry skiing and riding—involving hiking up to ski or snowboard down slopes in the woods, often beyond resort boundaries—as one of the growing uses of the forest. “It’s been exciting to see partners, like the Catamount Trail Association, run with new ideas and be resourceful with opportunities,” she said. Sugarbush has also responded to the popularity of off-piste skiing by establishing safety and uphill skiing rules.

Emerging from the woods, Brian, Audrey, and I skied up to the 4,005-foot summit of Mount Abraham and found ourselves encircled by some of the tallest peaks in the Northeast. 

Part of the Green Mountains’ Presidential Range lay to the south—Mounts Grant, Cleveland, Roosevelt, and Wilson. Beyond them, the ski trails of Killington Resort were visible on the flanks of Vermont’s second highest summit, Mount Killington (4,241’). To the east, Mount Washington (6,289’) loomed white on the horizon as the high point of New Hampshire’s Presidential Range. To the north, one of the highest sections of the Green Mountains, known as the Monroe Skyline, stretched to the distant Camel’s Hump (4,081’). And east across Lake Champlain, the conical Mount Marcy (5,343’) was in clear view within the Adirondack Park. 

Taking in the 360-degree panorama of this forest mosaic, framed by bluebird skies, I knew that Taylor had it right. Even my brief exposure on the ridge that day was awe inspiring. It was easy to imagine how countless Vermonters and visitors over the decades have come for a day hike or a multi-day journey along “Vermont’s footpath in the wilderness” and left as ambassadors. 

As we began our ski back, Audrey pointed out a grouping of radio and telecommunication towers appearing faintly on the horizon. In addition to being a helpful reference point for where we were headed, they symbolized the stark contrast between the rugged mountain and the modern uses of Lincoln Peak “This ridge links today’s escape into the wilderness and our responsibilities back home,” Audrey said.

The public’s desire to enjoy Vermont’s forests, and mountains has been a driving value in decisions about public and private land over the last century. And that desire will continue to counter the pull of industry moving forward. “Recreation opportunities are dynamic over time, necessitating that we work together to plan for what uses are compatible with what landscapes,” said DeBonis. “Vermonters’ long history with collaboration will help us continue to find the right balance into the future. None of us can do it alone.”


The Mad River Valley over 200 years ago


The Mad River Valley today, from Scrag Mountain


Lauren and Cory Ayotte with their dog, Tenney, on the Long Trail

LIFE ON THE LONG TRAIL

“Are they naked?” my wife, Lauren, asked. Just two hours into our thru-hike of Vermont’s famed Long Trail (stretching from Massachusetts to Canada), and the first couple we met was completely naked. We realized then that the journey was going to be more than just a long-distance hike. We anticipated sore muscles and mountaintop views during our sixteen-day, 272-mile journey. But it was the unique events we couldn’t predict that made our adventure extraordinary. 

Near Glastenbury Mountain, in the heart of the “Bennington Triangle” (an area feared by Native Americans and in which several people have gone permanently missing), we met one Appalachian Trail through-hiker (the two trails are conjoined for 100 miles) whose belongings were sprawled all around him. As we got closer, we could hear a staticky JFK speech projecting from his radio. Locking eyes with us, he repeated multiple times, “Hi! I’m DC on the AT.” Not sure what to make of his greeting, we booked it toward the summit, where a fire tower provided spectacular views of the wilderness around us. As we gazed over the land below, we wondered if “DC on the AT” was really a hiker or if he was one of the mythical creatures that allegedly inhabit the Bennington Triangle.

Several days later we met a group of the 10,000 free-spirited members of the Rainbow Family of Living Light. They had chosen Forest Service Road #10 in southern Vermont for their annual gathering, a crossing point on the trail. Arriving at this remote dirt road, we immediately felt their presence. Law enforcement vehicles lined the road to ensure a peaceful assembly. The lush green forest turned into a sea of tie-dye with hordes of folks coming back from Little Rock Pond. One individual stopped us to explain at length how our dog, Tenney, was the master of the universe and that we must follow her lead through life. (Fortunately for us, Tenney had a keen sense for staying on the trail.)

As we continued, the strange encounters dwindled, but never the majesty of the trail. After roughly 150 miles we hopped over the ridgeline between Lincoln Gap and Appalachian Gap. This was one of our favorite sections: the tremendous views of the spine of the Green Mountains coupled with the view of Lake Champlain validated why we live in this area. This high-elevation ridge is home to Sugarbush, and every step we took, we found ourselves pointing out favorite Mad River Valley spots and ski trails, and retelling epic stories of years past. Hiking through home territory and seeing friends rejuvenated us for the mountains that still lay ahead.

The area north of Mount Mansfield was rugged. We were constantly going up and down steep mountainsides like yo-yos. After a day of hiking twenty-four miles, our exhausted bodies arrived at Tillotson Shelter, where we met Green Mountain Club trail workers. Expecting rain the next two days, they were heading out of the woods earlier than expected. With loads of food still remaining, they cooked a large stir-fry for hungry hikers, generosity that was much appreciated after our toughest day. Roughly thirty-eight hours after that glorious meal, we hit the end of the trail—the Canadian border. Our transformative experience was over. I was elated; a long dream of mine had just come to fruition, with some surprises along the way that I couldn’t have foreseen. For me, looking back, the Long Trail is more than just a hike through Vermont’s wilderness, and my appreciation for our journey has continued to grow.

- Cory Ayotte